Historical Northeast Philadelphia
Stories and Memories ~1994
The history was written by Marie McHeran,
and John Altomari of the Wissinoming Historical Society.
In the fall of 1991, John Altomari invited an acquaintance, Dr. Harry Silcox, to the Senior Citizens’ meeting at Hope Lutheran Church, Benner and Ditman Streets. Here he showed his slide presentation of Old Tacony which was excellent and well received. One of the Seniors was actually seen on one of his historic slides.
The added comments and questions impressed Dr. Silcox and he suggested that something similar be initiated in the Wissinoming area.
John Altomari contacted several people who expressed interest in the project and possibility of forming the Wissinoming Historical Society was discussed. John advised Dr. Silcox of this project and learned he was organizing a Northeast coalition of neighborhood historical groups. A meeting was scheduled for October 9, 1991 at the Tacony Music Hall, 4815-19 Longshore Avenue. John Altomari, Marie McHeran, and Ann Peltz attended and thus began our affiliation with Northeast Historical Affiliates.
The founding members are John Altomari (President), Alberta Chase (Vice President), Ann Peltz (Secretary), Elsie Barnes (Treasurer), Marie McHeran (Chairman of the Board), Edward Fink, Al Irvine, Naomi Mellar, George Schule, Dorothy Weidemann and Walter Stock.
Admiral William Penn, father of William Penn the Quaker, was given a land grant from the King of England that encompassed what became Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods). This area included Philadelphia and what was then Oxford Township. It was named by the Seary family, the first settlers in this area, who were Quakers from Oxfordshire, England. Wissinoming was part of Oxford Township prior to the consoli- dation of Philadelphia City and County in 1854, wherein twenty-eight (28) boroughs and districts were brought together. The name Wissinoming first appeared on a property deed in 1723 but was never listed as an official subdivision or township of Philadelphia county.
Wissinoming takes its name from Wissinoming Creek, which is a patent for land granted by Edmund Andros, Governor of the Province of New York, on March 25, 1676, and was spelled, “Sissowokissinek,” Indian for “long, slender fish.” Wissinoming Creek was a large stream years ago. Many rare birds were to be found in the woods that lined its banks, as well as foxes, squirrels, rabbits, and other wild animals. This was especially true during the Civil War, when many farms were deserted. Wolves were known to have crossed the Delaware River on the ice from New Jersey as late as 1870.
The first inhabitants of Wissinoming were the Delawares of the Lenni-Lenape Thbe until about 1755, which gives credence to the Indian origin of the name. Various explanations of the name have been offered, the most credible being “place where the grapes grow,” probably from the wild grapes growing in the wooded areas. “Where the waters run” may have been referring to the Delaware River or the creeks existing in the early days. “Long, slender fish” perhaps originates from the eels caught in the Delaware River.
The first grant to a white man in this area, a Swedish settler named Peter Cock, in 1675, was named “Quessmacemink.” The alternate spelling of this name is Kwissinomink, which would be pronounced “Wissinoming” in English and would possibly mean “Duck Creek.”
In 1805, a survey was made of the Howell Farm, upon which Wissinoming is built. Howell Farm comprised 200 acres of land bounded on the east by Torresdale Avenue, the west by Wissinoming Park, the north by Wissinoming Creek (approximately the Robbins Avenue area), and the south by Dark Run Lane (Cheltenham Avenue). It was purchased by the Wissinoming Land Association in 1885.
Matthias W. Baldwin (1795-1866), the locomotive pioneer, named his country home “Wissinoming.” It was opposite the railroad station about 1853. A settlement grew up around this depot north of Bridesburg. Early families included Castor, Lardner, Penrose, Foster, Hannan, Salter, Cornelius, Lukens, and Bradner.
The Castor family was well known from the earliest days of Wissinoming. The George Johnson Castor house is still located at Howell and Tulip Street, which were originally known as Dark Run Lane and Tacony Road. Howard Paul Castor, a nephew of Barton Castor, was instrumental in having a road cut through from Frankford to 160 Historical Northeast Philadelphia: Stories and Memories Tacony on the north side of the railroad tracks. It was completed on July 3, 1894, and is presently known as Torresdale Avenue.
Professor T. Worcester Worrell wrote the following regarding “a remarkable occurrence in the location of Wissinoming”:
The year 1816 is spoken of as ‘the year without a Summer.’ In that year the whole country suffered from abnormally low temperatures, and this was especially true of the northern states. In June, snow fell in New York to the depth of five inches, and Massachusetts experienced a fall often inches. In Pennsylvania, frost, snow and ice prevailed throughout the summer months. In May, ponds were covered with ice one-half inch thick. Buds were frozen and crops destroyed. Farmers, despairing of a corn crop, cut down the stunted shoots and used them as fodder. In the whole state Wissinoming was particularly fortunate in raising a few perfect stalks bearing full ears. These were grown in fields with southern exposure in an angle between two woods and shielded from the northern and eastern storms.”
Mr. Samuel A. J. Salter contributes the following interesting facts regarding the early history of this vicinity.
“In May 1868, I moved to Wissinoming. I remember well the fine old mansion owned by Matthias Baldwin fronted by the fine row of shade trees which is now the Old Ladies Home. At that time there were only the following houses: the Baldwin and David mansions, the Ball and Castor homes, and four tenant houses. The surroundings were purely rural. A beautiful woods extended from the Delaware River along Wissinoming Creek almost to Bristol Turnpike, part of which still remains. The shore of the Delaware was a beautiful gravel beach, especially in front of “Somerset”, the Lardner’s place. In 1875 came the first change — the taking by the City of about three acres of land from Somerset on the river front for a pumping station. This was followed quite rapidly by industrial plants.
Salter’s memories of early Wissinoming also include the following: skating parties and ice-yacht racing took place on the Delaware River prior to 1900. Before the advent of street illumination, people carried lanterns at night. The first street light was placed on Howell Street in 1887. The ground along the river front from Dark Run Lane to Homestead Street was used for many years as a drilling ground for the mounted police. The Torresdale Avenue trolley line was opened in 1903, ten years after Jackson Street was opened in 1893.
A little known fact about Wissinoming is that it was one of the founding cities of the National Football League. The Frankford Yellow Jackets played in the League from 1924 until 1931 when the franchise, which is now the Philadelphia Eagles, was sold to Bert Bell and Fred Wray for $2500. The Yellow Jackets were the National League Football Champions in 1926. The Jacket Games drew 15,000 to 20,000 fans each game. Salaries ranged from $250 to $300 per game and an additional $10 for practice. There were twenty-two teams in the league that year. The Yellow Jackets won 14, lost 1 and tied 1. No other team played as many as sixteen games. Due to the City’s “Blue Laws” the Yellow Jackets had to play all home games on Saturday, then travel and play the next day away. The teams limit was eighteen players, and they played without shoulder pad equipment. Other teams in the league in 1926 were the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Providence Steam Rollers, Chicago Cardinals and Canton Bull Dogs, to name a few.
Names of some great players who played on the Yellow Jacket field are: Red Grange, Bronco Nagurski, Ken Strong, Charlie Rogers, Lud Wray, Herb Joesting, Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, George Halas, Curly Lambeau, William Pete Henery, Robert “Cal” Hubbard, John McNally, Jim Conzelman, William Lyman, Geo Trafton, Steve Owen, Walt Kiesling, Joe Guijon, Arnie Herber, Ed Healey, August “Mike” Michalske, John “Paddy” Driscoll, Grey Chamberlin, Morris “Red” Badgro and others who were entered into the Football Hall of Fame.
In the early years of football, various sizes of the ball, some under inflated, some inflated up to fifty pounds, were used. The rules by 1929, however, specified size, weight, and inflation.
Wissinoming, a residential community since the early 1800s, has long been overlooked by the industrial growth of Frankford and Tacony. In a news item in 1923, describing the location of the Yellow Jacket Stadium, nowhere is Wissinoming men- tioned: “The new field is above Frankford on the road to Holmesburg.
Robert Cornelius (1809-1893), one of Wissinoming’s famous residents, has been credited for taking the first photograph of the human face ever taken. Robert married Harriet Comly of England extraction, having three sons and five daughters. In 1851, Robert, feeling a strong call to be out more in the country and to get away from the people that he saw on a daily basis, bought a farm and woods of 80 acres on old Bristol Pike (Frankford Avenue) at Dark Run Lane (Cheltenham Avenue).
The farm was owned in the 1830s by a man named Blackburn. John Taylor owned the farm in the late 1840s and he called his estate “Lawndale.” Cornelius purchased the farm from Edward and Lydia Lukens for $18,500. Cornelius built three wings to the small residence about the center of the property, to accommodate his family and their children. When Robert Cornelius and his wife celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, thirty-two family members sat down to dinner and all thirty-two plus servants slept comfortably in the house that night.
Cornelius planted over 4,000 trees, many rare specimens. The creek that ran through the estate was dammed into two ponds. The overseer’s house also was used as Sunday Church School. President Abraham Lincoln was a friend and he visited Lawndale on occasion. Lawndale was the center of social life during these times.
Robert Cornelius left behind a legacy. He has been recognized as the person who did the most to beautify Wissinoming Park. After his death, the eighty-acre estate changed hands a few times, parcels were sold off and in 1913 Thomas and Indiana Tansey sold the forty-one acres that encompasses the park as it is known today. It was sold to the city of Philadelphia for $115,000 and named Cornelius Park. As time went by, newer generations began calling it Wissinoming Park To some old-timers, however, it is still known as Cornelius Park.
The generation gap produced nothing but positive results when teenagers from Mr. Jerome Ruderman’s, Department Head of Social Studies, class of Frankford High School met with Wissinoming Historical Society’s Senior Citizens. These students interviewed long term residents and learned what life was like before touch tone phones, VCRs, automatic heat, computers, etc. They also learned what changes took place in their neighborhood throughout the years.
Albert Irvine, a member of the Society and an antique car collector, treated the teenagers to a ride in his Model A Ford Roadster with its running boards and rumble seat proving that seeing is believing.
The following facts came to light from this unique meeting of youngsters and old- timers.
Interview with John Altomari
by William Smith
I was born of one immigrant parent, my father. My mother, Gertrude White, was born in Frankford on Farina Street in 1895. Her mother, Emma, was also born in Frankford. Her ancestry was English. My mother was one often children. They were very poor.
My Grandfather White died at an early age. I remember my mother telling me of their hardships, no indoor plumbing (not even water, it was brought in with pails and buckets) and she picked coal along the railroad tracks for heat. She went to work at age 13 in a hosiery mill on Dark Run Lane (Wingohocking Street). I loved my mother very much and my father was my real hero.
My father, Alfonso “Fred” Altomari, was born in 1885 in Belsito, Italy. He came to America alone in 1899 through Ellis Island, with a tag on his coat directing him to a family friend in Glasgo, New York. It was customary in those days for immigrants here to help others get to America. The “friend” must have been involved with others who also helped and he sent my father to Frankford, to board with the Fortino family on Unity Street. His first job was digging ditches for the Philadelphia Gas Works. He spoke very little English, but did progress to ajob with an Italian Baker, Joe Deni. Mr. Deni must have liked him and his work habits. He learned to drive the bakery truck and that started a life long job as a driver salesman.
My parents were married about 1910 or 12 and I have one sister, Mary, born in 1914. They rented a house on Seller Street and shortly after purchased a house, through the Bridesburg Perpetual Building and Loan Association, at 1502 Unity Street where I was born. I grew up in this house with running water, but no other plumbing facilities. My mother cooked on a black cast iron coal stove in the kitchen. This, along with a “pot belly” coal stove in the living room, provided the only heat in the three story house.
As a small child, my mother bathed me in the kitchen in a galvanized wash tub, heating water on the coal stove. I remember visiting the backyard toilet on some very cold winter days.
Another vivid memory is the very poor gas lighting, when it flickered a low flame, it meant I had to insert a quarter in the cellar gas meter. Later on, when we first got electric lights, the electric company had a promotion to replace burned out electric bulbs free, by returning the burned out one. This was one of my chores.
On very hot summer nights, the temperature reached 100 degrees and the four of us slept on the living room floor with the front and back doors open and a small electric fan offering some relief.
After hot water heat was installed, my job was to tend the furnace, rake, sift and remove the ashes to the front pavement on trash day. I used to admire the trash men, who were strong enough to lift and throw those heavy containers (just to empty them) about six feet high into the trash trucks. Another man I admired was a neighbor who drove the “back end” of the “hook and ladder” fire truck. He was the superman of our childhood.
When my father installed an indoor bathroom, he did it himself with the help of neighbors, one who had knowledge of plumbing. I can vividly remember him and two other men struggling with a very heavy cast iron bath tub up a very narrow curved stairway.
These were strong, hard working people. This is how the immigrants progressed, helping each other.
Very few women worked outside the home. For those with children, it was impossible, due to the needed labor in the home. Cooking on a coal stove, washing on a washboard, hanging out the wash (if it didn’t rain), draining the ice box water and polishing the black iron stove was a full time job for a housekeeper. Also preparing for the milk man, the bread man, the ice man (which meant a sign in the window) and taking care of the children, in addition to the shopping, visits to the butcher, the baker, and the grocer. Ironing clothes was done with a flat iron, heated on the coal stove. Men worked ten hours a day, six days a week and my father even worked longer hours.
Our activities were the fun we made ourselves; playing marbles, buck buck, red light, kick the can, peggy, and many others. We had a crystal radio set for evening entertainment with one set of ear phones. My father would place the earphones in a large glass bowl and we would all lean close as it amplified the sound.
We went to the movies on Saturday night, either the Windsor or the Frankford, where they had vaudeville. There were always beggars along Frankford Avenue and I never saw my father pass one without giving a dime. He always carried some dimes for this and told me how fortunate he felt to be in America, the land of opportunity.
I had one good pair of suit clothes and school clothes. As these became shabby, they became play and chore clothes. We either wore them out or grew out of them.
In spite of my father’s poor English, which constantly improved, he remained a very successful driver salesman. He became a driver of a team of mules selling soft drinks for Booth Bottling Company in Kensington. During summer vacation, he let me handle the reins to drive the mules. There was little to no automobile traffic so it was not dangerous.
One of his best customers was “Pleasant Hill,” a leisure area in Torresdale, near where I now live. It had a bathing beach on the Delaware River. Also very close was an old Philadelphia City project for poor children, called “Camp Happy.” My father would start very early from Kensington, drive the mules to Pleasant Hill, deliver a full wagon load of soda to the various drink stands and return late in the day to the plant. It was always late evening when he arrived at home.
Another memory was a radio program called “Amos and Andy.” It came on each evening after dinner and was so popular it was hurting the movie theaters. The theaters finally advertised and played the radio over a large amplifier before the movie in order to keep their customers.
There were racial problems in those days, just as there are today. The term was W.A.S.P., if you were not a “White Anglo Saxon Protestant” you could have problems mixing with those who were, getting a good job or getting promoted. My father was not well accepted into the “white” family when he married my mother. This racial feeling persisted, although to a much lesser degree, to my marriage, where the name Altomari drew some comments.
My young days were fun with Boy Scouting and baseball, which I enjoyed more than school. I was not a great student, but I never flunked a grade.
Interview with Mrs. Elsie Barnes
by Katy McGinley
My name is Elsie Barnes. My husband and three of our children went to Frankford High School. The other two went to Lincoln High. My maiden name is Cartwright.
My grandfather, William Cartwright, immigrated from Liverpool, England, in 1880 when he was twenty-one. At that time in England, parents gave their daughters dowries when they married. When their sons became twenty-one they were given a sum of money to “seek their fortune.” Since Liverpool was a seaport, I think my grandfather may have served his apprenticeship at a shipyard before he came to the United States. He came here by way of Ellis Island, New York and went to work at the New York Shipyard. He married Emila Ward, a girl from Long Island, New York. Her family was also English. Later they moved to Philadelphia and worked at Cramp’s Shipyard.
On my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather, David Grason, who was English, moved to Philadelphia and worked at Cramp’s Shipyard. He married a girl named Theodosia Cordray, whose family immigrated from France. Both families lived in Kensington.
My father, Joseph Cartwright, also worked at Cramp’s. He met and married Ida Grason, my mother. My parents, my two brothers and I moved to Wissinoming in 1920. Then my father was doing maintenance work for the Board of Education.
When we first moved to Wissinoming some of the houses still had back houses (outside toilets) and water pumps, but our house already had been changed to indoor plumbing, with a bathroom and running water. Our house originally had gas lights, but it had been changed to electricity before we moved in. The houses were still being heated by coal. During the first World War, you had to have a prescription from your doctor to buy a ton of coal.
The transportation to Northeast Philadelphia in 1900 was by train, but as the neighborhoods built up, the trolley cars went into service. Into the 1930’s we still had horse drawn trash wagons, milk wagons and ice wagons. We didn’t have electric refrigerators. We had to buy blocks of ice and put them in our ice box.
I remember our first radio. It was a crystal set that my father put together. The wire was wrapped around a round oatmeal box. The first station we heard was Pittsburgh. You had to have earphones to listen.
I remember the hand-cranked automobiles, Oaldands and Model T Fords. We did not have an automobile until 1938.
The Great Depression started in 1929 and was not completely over until 1939. The financial condition of our neighborhood would be considered average until the Great Depression, then nearly everyone experienced being poor.
Most of the people were out of work The house rent was about $25 a month. Some of the women tried to earn money by sewing because they and their friends could not afford to buy clothing. Some of the women in the Kensington area earned money by sewing baseballs by hand.
In my mother’s home there were seven adults and one child with only $45 a month income. Meals had to be planned so each one was getting enough nourishment for as little money as possible. During the Second World War (1941-1945), food, sugar, shoes, tires, meat and liquor were rationed. The government gave you coupons (ration books) for each of these items. When your coupon book was empty you had to wait for the next issue.
In 1934 my husband, Harry Barnes, was working at wall scraping. He was working six days for $12.50 a week The men worked in pairs and they had to scrape the walls and ceilings of six rooms a day.
In 1935, he went to work at Disston Saw Works. He was paid 37 and a half cents an hour for grinding saws. When he started to do piece work his pay was raised to sixty cents an hour or twenty-four dollars a week.
Harry joined the fire department in 1940. He was paid $1,820 a year for working eighty-four hours a week, which comes to $35 a week.
Before TV, people used to visit one another, play cards or stand around the piano and sing. The young people used to play street games such as jumping rope, hop scotch and hide and seek The teenagers played team games such as lie low sheepy, red rover, cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers. They would play on a small back street with no through traffic.
In the early 1920’s Wissinoming had a movie theater on the east side of Torresdale Avenue. It’s name was the “Elite” but the kids calledit~-the “Flea Bite.” Then the Northeastern movie was built at Torresdale and Benner Streets.
Wissinoming had a large Halloween Parade which anyone in costume could enter. They also had a Memorial Day Parade in which the First World War Veterans marched, but the Civil War Veterans rode in open cars. They also had a 4th of July Parade, which started at Lawton School and ended up at Wissinoming Park. Then we would have a picnic in the park. After dark, people from all over would come to see the fireworks display. The neighborhood churches all had their church picnics in the park too.
The Yellow Jackets Stadium was on the east side of Frankford Avenue, between Benner and Devereaux Streets. The Frankford Yellow Jackets was started in Frankford by the Frankford Athletic Association. When they joined the National Football League, they played at the stadium in Wissinoming. When they sold the franchise in 1933, the name of the team was changed to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Red Grange and Olympian Jim Thorpe played with the Yellow Jackets. Ernie Nevers still holds the record for scoring forty points in one game.
Interview with Paul Stiteler
by Michelle K. Hazelwood
My family immigrated from Germany in the 1700’s. I had a grandfather who fought and died in the Civil War and my mother’s father was a baker.
While I was growing up my family’s financial situation was good. We always had food and my father, at times, helped out the rest of the family. He was very generous. We ate well-balanced, standard American meals, with things such as apple dumplings. My mother baked delectable pies, which she learned from her father.
I was born n 1919 and grew up in the “roaring twenties.” The twenties were prosperous years. I often played hide and seek or red rover come over. Growing up was good, I often hung out at Robbins’ Field and played touch football. Sometimes we would go to Shibe Park to see the Athletics. We would watch House of David, which was a professional exhibition game. They would pass “the hat” and ask for donations. In Wissinoming we could watch the Philadelphia Twilight League who were semi- professional. I enjoyed building model airplanes and I also listened to nursery rhyme records.
In the twenties, electricity and plumbing were installed in homes. The indoor plumbing was a big deal, we no longer had to walk outside in the cold to use the bathroom. We also could listen to music and the first automobiles were on the streets.
My family and I moved to Wissinoming in the 30’s. As I got older I spent my leisure time playing football. I attended Northeast High School, but never played any organized sports for school. I would say, “I got a football injury, I fell out of the stands.” I also attended church functions and dances to associate with girls.
My wife and I met at a dance and married in 1941. The 40’s went by rapidly due to the war. I was a tool maker, so I didn’t have to go to war. Mechanics were needed for the homefront. I worked sixty hour weeks because the industry began to pick up.
World War II didn’t affect us too much, of course, we bought bonds for patriotic reasons. Money for war bonds was taken from my pay, but after ninety days we could redeem them.
The first election I remember was Al Smith versus Hoover. It was a big election because Al Smith was Catholic. During election time there would be big rallies and marches up and down the streets. On election night we would go out and make a big bonfire.
Transportation is about the same now as then. I would take the elevated train when traveling into Center City. I also rode the trolley. Public transportation cost fifteen cents for two tokens and one transfer.
Wissinoming hasn’t changed from when I was growing up. Most of the houses had already been built. Actually the only change had occurred above Frankford Avenue. What was once all farm land is now Mayfair.
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